Election Issues Create Diplomatic Minefield

The trigger for the next federal ELECTION has variously been pegged as Afghanistan, the upcoming budget, even crime legislation. It depends on who's talking, on what day, and possibly on the phase of the moon.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on February 25, 2008

The trigger for the next federal ELECTION has variously been pegged as Afghanistan, the upcoming budget, even crime legislation. It depends on who's talking, on what day, and possibly on the phase of the moon.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on February 25, 2008

Election Issues Create Diplomatic Minefield

The trigger for the next federal ELECTION has variously been pegged as Afghanistan, the upcoming budget, even crime legislation. It depends on who's talking, on what day, and possibly on the phase of the moon. When it comes to which issue Stephen HARPER's minority will fall on, conventional wisdom has shifted so often lately that it's clearly more provisional than conventional. As for how much of it is wisdom, well, only the final stab at a prediction - whatever speculation happens to be in the air just before Harper's government finally is defeated will have a lasting claim to being anything more than guesswork.

Still, minorities do eventually fall, and of the issues Harper might lose a confidence vote on in the House, Canada's future role in Afghanistan has commanded by far the most serious attention. A matter of war and peace is undeniably weighty enough to fight an election over. But this week's signs of compromise between Harper and LIBERAL Leader Stéphane DION left little doubt neither really wants to go to the polls over the mission in Kandahar. Within an hour of Dion telling a news conference Tuesday morning that he was exploring "common ground" on extending the mission, Harper was echoing: "The government's objective is to seek common ground here."

It seems Afghanistan doesn't fit either parties' preferred story line in what might be called the battle of the negative narratives. As they jostle for a pre-election advantage, Harper and Dion are each trying to tell a tale that defines the other guy in the public imagination, and not in flattering terms. Darrell Bricker, veteran pollster and president of Ipsos Reid public affairs in Toronto, summarizes the duelling stories like this: Liberals depict Harper as "a mean, difficult guy who doesn't really listen to other people," and CONSERVATIVES cast Dion as "weak and erratic, not ready for prime time."

The Afghanistan epic, however, increasingly refuses to fit neatly into either partisan story arc. It wasn't always so. Back in 2006, Harper's war rhetoric often showcased his tough-talking, Republican-sounding side. He swaggeringly conflated his personal commitment to fighting the Taliban with national character. "Cutting and running is not my way," he told troops in Kandahar in 2006, "and it's not the Canadian way." By mid-2007, though, he was turning down the bellicosity, instead emphasizing reconstruction and aid. By appointing the bipartisan John Manley panel to advise him on the way forward, and then quickly accepting its main advice last month, he made it hard for Liberals to depict him as an intransigent warmonger.

For Dion, the risk was that any wavering on Afghanistan would turn into a fresh Tory story about his indecisiveness. He couldn't gut his long-standing demand for Canada's combat mission in Kandahar to end by February 2009, or allow any public rift among skittish Liberal MPs. His solution: let the mission continue, but restrict troops to defending reconstruction, and end aggressive counter-insurgency. It was good enough for his MPs not to break ranks. For Tories pushing their narrative about a vacillating Dion, Liberal unity behind a firm position wasn't a helpful development.

So Afghanistan has given Harper a chance to show he can take advice and seek consensus, and Dion an opportunity to demonstrate he can hang tough and enforce party discipline. Not bad for an issue that not long ago looked like a minefield for both Liberals and Tories. Of course, the climate of cordial co-operation between the two main parties in the House can't last. There remains plenty of room for partisan positioning on Afghanistan, or even an outright failure of efforts to harmonize the Tory motion to extend the mission with a Liberal amendment to limit the fighting troops can do. But party strategists are already moving on to new issues around which they can tell those campaign-shaping stories.

If Afghanistan is ultimately defused, the next most explosive bit of House business will almost certainly be the Feb. 26 budget. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has been staking out a position of stern fiscal rectitude. "I'm not going to be the finance minister that puts our country back into deficit," Flaherty vowed this week. He is pushing back hard against pressure to uncork more spending or cut taxes further to shore up the Canadian economy against an expected hit from the U.S. downturn. Harper began bluntly declaring this budget would not contain any significant new spending or tax cuts as long ago as his pre-Christmas media interviews. In fact, the Tories have little choice: big tax cuts announced last fall eliminated whatever room they might have had for short-term stimulus measures this spring.

But even if Harper is boxed in, he might be able to turn a no-nonsense, stand-pat budget to his advantage. John Duffy, a veteran Liberal strategist and political consultant with StrategyCorp in Toronto, says the Prime Minister looks well-positioned if economic uncertainty, combined with ongoing anxiety over Afghanistan and Iraq, alters the public mood. Duffy suggests 1970s-style anxiety might be about to replace 1990s-born complacency. "A lot of people have forgotten," he says, "what politics was like in Canada when people in the middle class were very worried about whether they were going to be able to hang on to what they had."

And a worried electorate wants to hear a story about a reassuring leader. "If we're heading back to the politics of uncertainty," Duffy says, "the question would be, 'Who's got the new narrative?' Harper has been moving toward that narrative since his pre-Christmas interviews. Trimming expectations on the budget. Underscoring what difficult and complex decisions we face on Afghanistan." The moral of Harper's story: "In a period of uncertainty, he's the political leader with the soundest judgment about what's safest for Canadians."

If Harper is adapting to more unsettling times, Dion will need to adjust too. The Liberal leader's "three pillars" formula promises economic growth, social justice, and environmental sustainability. But uplifting aspirations for good times could begin to sound naive if anxiety sets in. "The Liberal narrative about being richer, fairer, greener, risks being left behind by the sudden shift that's out there toward uncertainty in politics," Duffy says.

Take Dion's signature issue, the environment. His emphasis on the need to combat global warming has been closer to Canadian public opinion, especially in key battlegrounds like Quebec and parts of British Columbia. But economic worries could make Harper's more cautious approach begin to sound more prudent. "On the environment," Duffy observes, "Harper is saying, 'I will provide us with all the environmental action that I think we can safely afford.' "

The notion that Harper might actually be able to capitalize on an economic downturn by pitching himself as the firm-hand-on-the wheel choice has obvious appeal for Tories. It doesn't require them to convince voters to like the Prime Minister, just respect him. Polls suggest plain ability to do the job is Harper's strongest selling point. According to the CPAC-Nanos Leadership Index, Harper far outstrips Dion's ratings for trustworthiness, vision and competence. But the share of Canadians who rate Harper the most trustworthy has slipped from 35 per cent to 30 per cent over the past year, while those who view him as having the best vision has dropped from 39 to 32 per cent. He is much more resilient on competence, where his best-of-the-bunch ranking slipped only slightly from 41 per cent a year ago to 39 per cent early this month. (Dion is seen as most competent by 22 per cent; not great, but up five percentage points from a year ago.)

If Tories imagine packaging Harper as a safer PM for tougher times will allow them to gain ground in a downturn, they're betting against history. More often, governments are turfed out after an economic rough patch. With that history in mind, some Liberal MPs argue they should hold off on felling Harper's minority until a U.S. recession that could sideswipe Canada. At the same time, they fear the Tories might orchestrate their own fall before any bad economic news hits. An election on the economy, though, would have the parties trying to drown each other out by telling the same story about each other. This week, a Tory memo made "reckless spending" a key attack line against the Liberals. But Liberal MP John McCallum, Dion's finance critic, is charging Conservatives with "spending like crazy" for the past two years to leave themselves in a tight position now.

Aside from the state of the economy, public disgust over government ethical lapses is arguably the most reliable vote-driver, when it arises. Paul MARTIN fought the sponsorship saga in both his campaigns as Liberal prime minister. Bricker says Martin succeeded in 2004 by pinning an even more gripping story about "risk and hidden agendas" on Harper. But in 2006, Harper managed to "construct a narrative about corruption" that stuck to Martin, and allowed the Tories to triumph.

These days, Liberals seem less interested in reviving the old secret-agenda story about Harper than trying to spin a new one about Tory skulduggery. In recent weeks, Liberal MPs have hammered away at Flaherty over his admission he broke rules to give an untendered $122,000 contract to a Tory speech writer. They've taken on Environment Minister John Baird over his alleged tampering in last year's Ottawa mayoral election. And Liberals plan to try injecting new life into the still unsettled dispute between the Conservatives and Elections Canada, over the federal election regulator's charge that the Tories broke spending rules on campaign advertising in the 2006 race.

None of these bids to undermine Harper's boasts about running a clean government have yet dented the public consciousness. So far, they haven't added up, as effective campaign fodder must, to a good story to tell.

Maclean's February 25, 2008